|NEA Funding Status; Sequestration; Taking Leave|
Last month, the House Appropriations Committee, as expected, approved legislation cutting appropriations for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) by almost 10%. The bill would hold arts spending in fiscal year 2013 at $132 million, down from current funding of $146.3 million. The Obama administration had proposed an increase in arts spending to $154.255 million in the president's 2013 budget request to Congress.
I am hopeful that the Senate, when it drafts its version of the Interior Appropriations Bill, will allocate a level of spending for the NEA considerably above the amount set by the House. For one thing, the Senate in its proposal for 2012 appropriations initially put forward $155 million in funding for the NEA. What's more, Senate appropriators have more funds to work with in their budget. Earlier this year, the House passed a budget resolution to cut its total federal spending line below the level agreed upon as part of the debt ceiling negotiations, and consequently lowered the allocations available to appropriators in the House.
NASAA and our fellow advocates are working to encourage both House and Senate Republicans and Democrats to hold the line without further cuts this year. None of this is expected to happen until after the November election, in which case the outcome is anybody's guess.
For the past three decades, since the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan, federal arts funding has sat as a target for fiscal conservatives in Congress and has been protected from total elimination by moderates of both parties. In January 1981, when I began my work with NASAA, the newly elected President Reagan took office pledging to cut by half the funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, with the intent to eliminate the remaining half the following year. It didn't happen. Over the 30 years since then, federal arts spending has risen and fallen. In 20 of those years, we have seen increases large and small. In the other 10 years we have endured decreases of similar magnitude, with one singular exception.
In 1996, Congress cut the NEA's budget by more than 40% from the high point of $176 million in 1992. Federal arts support has not fully recovered from that decrease in the two decades since. The greatest percentage of growth over a similar span of four years was the 28% increase in arts funding built up between 2005 and 2010. In the past two years, small cuts have set the NEA budget back to its current level.
At this time a year ago, Washington was deadlocked in debate over the size of the federal debt limit. The so-called supercommittee was deep in its assignment to fix the federal debt crisis. The 12-person House and Senate special committee, in addition to identifying spending cuts, could propose tax code reforms and make savings in benefit programs like Medicaid, Medicare or Social Security. Congress could not modify the committee's recommendation.
The only fix that moderate minds agreed upon would have been a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. Neither side on the supercommittee would yield. The result: automatic across-the-board spending cuts of at least $1.2 trillion—something called sequestration. Lawmakers going into the deficit ceiling deal had agreed that if the supercommittee could not reach a deal on how to cut the deficit, automatic spending cuts would go into effect in January 2013, taking from both defense and domestic programs. President Obama has said that the deal will result in the lowest level of domestic spending since the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s.
Sequestration was engineered to be so unpalatable that it would not kick in, but avoiding it demands a grand compromise on taxes and spending, which remains out of the reach of the current legislative agenda or beyond the will of congressional leaders and the rank and file. The cuts could be as high as 9.1% and would impact almost every program, including federal arts support. A group called the Bipartisan Policy Center recently reported that the sequester cuts in total could reduce the nation's gross domestic product by about half a percentage point in 2013. Did I say that the sequester plan was meant to inflict political pain? Enough to force action on the really big important issues in front of us?
Meanwhile, the appropriations process continues, but again, no conclusion is likely to happen until after the election. That's when the lame duck Congress will need to deal with the 2013 budget and the issue of the expiring tax cuts, as well as the looming threat of sequestration forcing automatic spending cuts.
This is the work that I have loved and the challenges I have enjoyed in 30 years of linking arms with you to press our advocacy in Congress for federal dollars in support of the arts. You have been the best teammates and my admiration and thanks go to each of you for your dedication to the task.
I am pleased to leave this work in the very capable hands of Isaac Brown, whom I have known for many years and with whom I have had the pleasure of working on Capitol Hill. (See NASAA's welcome in this issue's Announcements and Resources column.) Isaac shares my approach to advocacy and dedication to good policy based on the principle by which we at NASAA have succeeded over these years: that the arts are a nonpartisan issue and our advocacy work is bipartisan. I will miss the work but I am confident that all will be well. Thank you.